India, You Own Me

The moment I breathed in muggy air, felt my skin prickle from the heat as I exited Mumbai’s International terminal, was an awakening. I knew this was going to be an unforgettable experience.

Friends or newly formed acquaintances ask me, how was India?

My voice dies. Lips unable to speak. A simple set of words eludes me.

She can’t be summed up in one sentence. Ever.

Cities heave under the weight of human survival, prosperity and ingenuity. The buildings, some gleaming, newly poured, while others are crumbling and abandoned. Or the pockmarked pavement where motorbikes, scooters and Tata cars jockey for position. The onset of car culture and the American mentality that is seeping in seems to be winning. But the power of a 5,500-year-old culture doesn’t buckle so easily.

The cities may be considered the heart, epicenter of India, but it’s the villages that are the arteries, the veins pumping life’s blood into her, carving paths to multiple doorways of religion and culture.

Imagine this: thatch huts with a sow tied to a wooded fence stand in plain sight alongside a steel waste management bin that’s dutifully emptied by screeching, rumbling trucks that are fueled by gas, not magic dust. It’s this marriage of tradition and modern that leads a wanderer to cover her eyes in wake of a collision, yet it never comes. What you receive is ordered chaos – coexistence between the ancient and progress.

The village injects her desires into the pocket of every metropolis.

There’s no distinction between hick land and the cosmopolitan. It all meshes together. Within that what endures is family. Every distant relative is cousin, brother or sister. A profound, staggering stronghold of community. Then, the holy. The spiritual tangling of India spreads to every waking moment, people are bound with each other, so that a collective release is encouraged, a given. Celebration always surrounded me.

I will miss:

  • The driving mania of Mumbai. Cars careening towards me. I thought I would die a hundred times.
  • Ducking cow manure.
  • Walking beside a family of cows in the blazing sun, as cars honk and narrowly navigate past.
  • Hearing multi-languages as I cross state borders.
  • The head bobble.
  • An indulgent vegetable thali.
  • Stopping a chai wallah on a 22-hour train journey. Watching as he separates the plastic cups and releases sweet goodness from his portable thermos.
  • Dosas.
  • A rainbow of saris in front of me, punctuated by the lovely women wearing them.
  • The sweet, lonely dogs seeking a place to nap in the noonday heat.
  • Observing a restaurant worker light incense before his homemade altar, pray, and return to work.
  • The locals who offered me part of their lunch, asked who I was, how I enjoyed their country.
  • Incessant honking.
  • The Taj Mahal.

Why should you visit India? She will cause your pulse to quicken, stomach churn, and skin to break out in sweat or cold. Every single nerve of your being will spark. You will feel unmistakably alive. She doesn’t pull punches, and that’s what we signed up for.

India taught me patience, made me laugh, sob, sick, and forced me stand outside myself.

It’s raw, real. A blemished, imperfect, nonsensical part of the world.

I will be back.

My 50 best photos from India.

By |May 28th, 2011 |Categories: India |44 Comments
Tags: , ,

Same Destination; Different Experience

walk along

Allan and I had just met four hours ago and he irritated me.

Not because he wasn’t pleasant. He was male.

I first noticed it when we walked back to his hotel. The old section of Udaipur has a main street that bursts with humans, rickshaws, cars and motorbikes constructed of various nuts, bolts or chromosomes. The street heaves, contracting endlessly to fit all these objects.

Offshoots from the main street become snaking one-way streets. It was down one of these streets when Allan was assaulted. With kindness.

A male shop worker slapped him affectionately on the back. Smiling broadly as he recounted how Allan bought them tea at a restaurant the other day.

Another hugged him almost tenderly, telling me that Allan spent an hour in his shop talking like old friends.

A few would idle in front of their stores, yelling a “hello” to him. The type of greeting bursting with camaraderie.

You would think the Maharaja himself was resurrected and here he was in the flesh.

What annoyed me was not Allan’s popularity, but his experiences.

How effortlessly he forged buddy connections in a short amount of time.

Most of my experiences were great, yet could not be rated as warm and fuzzy. Always the curious questions; sometimes a joke or two. When I was in a restaurant, usually one male acted as the spokesperson, while the rest hungrily gawked.

I mused about my latest one. A self-proclaimed neighbor who lived next to my guesthouse offered to drive me back one night. I had just arrived and was absolutely lost on how to get back, though had a vague idea. Vague ideas were not going to return me safely to a guesthouse at 10 p.m.  I asked a few questions, felt somewhat comfortable and hopped on the back. Far away from the driver for good measure. He gushed how lucky he was to have a beautiful girl on the back of his bike, and feel free to sit closer to him. I had not resorted to what all the guides spew out about male-female interactions, but this time I did.

“No, I’m not sitting closer. I have a boyfriend.”

Eventually we pulled up to the guesthouse. I later realized he purposely took a long route to buy more time with the “beautiful” girl.

My walls were up significantly. And he knew it. I swung my leg over the Hero Honda to stand on solid ground. He tried to reassure me of his character. And look, the guesthouse is here.

I finally relaxed, laughed and thanked him. We shook hands, parting ways, agreeing on a gender relation truce.

Solo traveling is harsh enough, but throw that extra word in, solo ‘female’ traveling conjures a whole new meaning.

Puberty doesn’t prepare you on how to move in the world. The rules or mishaps. Or clue you into the experiences you might have, could miss out on.

My jealousy of Allan’s confidence to walk through India’s culture of men faded when I thought back to the precious moments I was privy to.

The women who invited me into their homes, trans-generations of them serving me strong, black tea, hugging me into their metaphorical bosoms.

I remembered the wise, older male figures who spoke to me on trains, a busy street or were guesthouse owners.  They wanted to protect me, ensure I was happy and safe.

And I coaxed those moments with children. Little ones, who giggled with me, bounced around with energy or made me race them in some inventive tagging game.

In India, I might miss out on slamming back beers with the guys or revealing my caustic side. I’m okay with that.

Men and women may share a destination, but cull unique experiences from a place, the people. The beauty of diversity, even in what we were born with.

Is solo female travel scary? Insurmountable? No. Just different.

Photo: Frerieke

Horse Whispering in Rajasthan

A Little Historical Reference

The history of the horse in Rajasthan spans hundreds of years. At one time in the land of kings, horses were used for pleasure trips and thunderous warfare.

Rajasthan society was infused with a social caste system. This included horses. The Marwari breed reached the highest esteem, thus only Rajputs were privileged to ride these stunning creatures in battle.

As I poked around places like Jaipur or Udaipur, Chetak by far is the most famous horse. He belonged to Pratap Singh, Hindu ruler of Mewar. Singh is a revered hero of Rajasthan, prominently featured in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576, the power struggle between the Mughal-Mewar kingdoms.

Several Rajput generals had joined under Mughal Emporer Akbar, but Pratap refused, selfishly protecting his pride and honor. You can imagine the fall-out. During the Battle of Haldighati, as Pratap perched on the regal Chetak, he attacked Man Singh on his elephant, a prince and special envoy to Mughal Emperor Akbar. In the heat of swords clashing and guttural cries of the battle knell, Chetak suffered severe injuries and died valiantly in battle. His master cried like a baby and entered a page of history.

Pratap Singh and Chetak monument – Udaipur

That’s as much as I know. When I noticed posters for horse safaris at my guesthouse, it was tantalizing, too hard to resist.

Did I mention I’ve never ridden a horse before? Ever. I’m the anti-anti Alberta girl. While farming debutantes were thrust into the limelight of cowtown, I buried myself in my room, writing morose poetry.

The Tour

I was picked up at my hotel and driven about half an hour out of the Udaipur city to Pratap Country Inn.

You can stay there for 500 RS and ride free everyday for two hours, as long as you help out a bit on the farm. I chose the two and a half hour ride with a guide for 700 RS. Figured I should go easy my first time.

Stable at Pratap Country Inn

I snuck up close and took pictures. Some of them looked straight at me, wearily.

Oh, another stupid tourist taking my picture.

Isn’t she pretty?

The riding coordinator asked if I had any experience.


He pointed to a clipboard.

“Sign here.” Uh, what did I just sign? If you fall, not our problem, methinks.

Me on Radha

Her name is Radha. With shiny fur, glossy and dark as coal. Horses are big animals, strong and sinewy. She had a charming Mohawk down her neck and she would gaze at me with hesitation. Her almond shaped eyes brimmed with curiosity.

The hard part was actually getting on. Full-grown horses are tall, I am short. I put my left food in the stirrup and tried to heave my other leg over, while someone held Radha.

No go.

Second time around, they told me to hold onto the front of the saddle and use it for leverage. I needed some assistance, needless to say. A helper had to shove my butt onto the saddle.

I pet her frequently and whispered to her. It’s better to be paired with a female horse because they scare less easily than males. I hoped that was true.

My guide

My guide, Shaja, slinked onto his horse with maddening ease, asked if I was ready to go.

A full-stop, definite, no.

I was visibly nervous as Radha started moving underneath me.

A shaky start towards our destination

I cursed at what sparse knowledge I had on holding the reigns and tried not to ponder how high up I was. A good ten feet or so, I’m positive.

I gripped her too tight between my thighs, sat too forward.

Thank bloody goodness, a helper walked alongside in case I couldn’t handle her, which was often.

On the trail towards village

We started off along dirt pathways, which connected to hilly areas.

The landscape unfolded and I gasped in delight. Rolling fields of fading gold spread before us. Rustic dwellings sat upon hills, spilling onto other hills. Some of the land was scrubbed free of bush or grass. I pictured the early Rajputs, taming the earth and wooing horses into loyal companions.

The other phenomenon – stillness. You could feel time closing around you, existing in a period when India was only a handful of families populating a village.

Approaching Titardi

We reached the nearby village of Titardi, kids swarmed us with “hello” or “namaste”. It was time for refreshments. We parked the horses by the town pump to stop for a Sprite and Miranda.

Young girl getting the day’s water – Titardi

Mounting the horse became easier. Dismounting, not so much. My stumped leg refused to swing easily and often smacked Radha on the side. Whoops. Horse edict no-no.

Animals galore in Titardi

With some more mounting assistance, we set off again. Then a miracle happened.

Without knowing, my body began to relax. Ever fiber of my body felt alive, nerves twisting and turning to the visuals and soothing quiet. We were trotting mostly, sometimes Radha would go a little faster or I would prompt her by clicking my heels against her trunk. I felt hyper aware of my surroundings, the motion of Radha, or when she grunted at me. For once, the heat was a tickle instead of insufferable. What felt strange was the unfamiliar swaying of my body from side to side.

I danced with taking her for a run. How freeing that would be.

I’m on a horse!

Just when I was starting to love horseback riding, it reached a transcendent level.

We climbed a steep range, where my psychological footing grew nervous again. Radha navigated with her delicate hooves, startling loose rocks, kicking up dirt. It eased once we reached the top.

Right in the center of the exhausted dirt and yellow grass stood a jade green oasis.

Renewing waters – Jogi Lake

If there was ever a Utopian well, a spring of youth, Jogi Lake is it. I had to ask several times what the name was, and I’m still not positive of it’s exactness. It was that unreal.

Jogi and all its splendor

Everything halted. It was a portal of peace that is a rare find in India. So, I posed and smiled and felt present.

These are the “hell yeah” experiences I missed before.

Ignore the dorky clothes. Concentrate on the smile

Should You Do It?

An unequivocal yes. It’s one of those rare experiences that leap into your journal, the kind of story you pull out at parties.

Next round will be a five to seven day safari. The full deal. I can’t wait. Some are tailored to weave through the Arravali mountain-range or as far as the Pushkar camel fair. A big tip: don’t stand behind a horse when a) they dump  b) they kick. One scars your olfactory senses and vision (a lot comes out!), the other will land you in the hospital.

Cost: I paid 700 RS for two hours. A full safari trip of five, seven or ten days can really depend on number of people. That can range from 5,000 to 10,000 RS. Possibly even higher. These longer trips include lodging and food.

Some reputable horse safari companies:

By |May 10th, 2011 |Categories: Adventure, Udaipur |14 Comments

When You Bleed, You Think About Life


Facing Truths

“How long has this been going on?”

I couldn’t see the doctor from my position, on my back, as light pierced my eyes. The only visible shape was the outline of her body, a white aura bleeding around her face. Just a disembodied voice tinged with disapproval.

“Six days.”

I lied. Maybe I just didn’t want to face the truth myself. It had really been seven days of spotting on and off.

I knew it was stupid to leave the problem so long. You prolong knowing. I drank too much in my early thirties, smoked a heap of cigarettes. My age is a factor. Even my sexual choices cast a shadow.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memories, I kept wondering if this was happening well before my last intimate encounter, and I chose to ignore it.

I had just got in from Udaipur that morning, threw my bags at Mystique Moments, and rushed out again for this dreaded appointment.

The rickshaw driver had no idea where Fortis La Femme was; I was late, then barreled in sweating and exhausted.

With barely time to breathe in the stifling 40-degree weather, she uttered something that woke me from any travel anxiety.

“We need to do some tests, probably an ultrasound to see what might be going on.”

I gulped.

Everything Flashes

As she prepared me for the ultrasound, instructing me to lie down, placing a towel across my stomach, everything rushed at me.

Staph definitely rattled me. Yet, that can be annihilated with strong antibiotics.

This could be much worse. I knew it, could not ask her out loud.

This could be the big C.

The specter of my past and future slid in full view.

Have I done everything I’ve wanted to? Absolutely not. Am I happy? I’m starting to be.

Then, I thought about all the people I regretted. The lovers I was never fully honest with. Faces of friends or family appeared to me, how I forgot to express how much I love them. Or forgive those who slighted me.

Buddhists believe that death is always present. That you should live everyday on the basis that you could die. Sounds morbid, but what that signifies is opening your world to risk, spontaneity and an untethered existence. Feeling free, essentially.

Make the most of your earthly time.

Now, Hindus staunchly stick to reincarnation. There’s a difference between the inner soul and the outer body. The outer body is viewed as the ‘container’, so upon death, the inner soul will inhabit another body. After a few reincarnations, and that last container are ashes in a funeral pyre, the soul will rest or join the ultimate soul, known as Para-Athma.

This nudged me into questioning how we live our lives. Would you squander it if you knew next time you’ll be a whole new human being?

I was a douchebag in this life, body number two I’ll get right. Plenty of containers for me.

The technician rubbed gel on my abdomen, and then worked the applicator in a circular motion to generate a visual on the screen.

I saw my insides. It was actually kind of fascinating. Grainy, grey pixels were fed back to me. Maybe it was my breathing, but my internal self vibrated off the screen.

“Okay, looks normal here.”

One sigh of relief.

“Hmmm.. there are some fibroids though, will have to examine those under 3-D view.”

I gripped the sides of the examination table, spooked by what that could mean.

Throw the Dice of Life

She told me to relax. I tried.

The technician captured several more close-ups in 3-D. Two doctors consulted each other in Hindi, leaving me out of the conversation, this only served to make me panic more; they promised to explain in English.

I waited for the news, surprised at my calmness.

She said not to worry. They found four fibroids, none of them potentially cancerous, none that were blocking anything significant.

“I’ve sourced the bleeding. Will give you something to stop that and hopefully the irritation clears up. I will know more once the rest of the results come in.”

I’m not overly religious, never have been. Except a fevered reading bout of the bible at age ten. Big words are hard at age ten.  You try saying Deuteronomy.

If I had to choose, I embrace the Buddha way.

Is everything finite and precious? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is the rest of my life, however long that will be, must be lived at full tilt.

That includes joy or pain, encompasses sickness and blushing health. When I have those scary moments of traveling solo, processing the events I’ve been through.

It does seem like India is killing me.

Sarah MacDonald wrote a searingly funny memoir of her time in India.  I always remember the acknowledgments. She thanks her husband, Jonathan, for taking her. Normal enough. It’s the second sentence that use to strike me as strange.

“And to India, for making me.”

I swim in emotions that were dormant from my former life. I see so much, excited to discover more. I understand things against my will.

I like to believe India is putting me back together again.

I’m in Love… With My Guesthouse

I didn’t know what to expect when the rickshaw dropped me off in the old town of Udaipur. Reviews said Mewargarh Palace is decent and boast fair and accommodating owners. See, after so many couches, Murphy Beds, and unwashed sheets I’ve become cynical.

As though nothing could possibly please me now. I stood outside the dull brown latched door, pressed the doorbell, and walked in bracing myself.

I dropped my backpacks and lightening struck. Love. At first sight. Does that even happen anymore? My insides told me –  yes! Amore.

The charming courtyard:

Intricate window design:

My enchanting little room. He only charged me 400 RS for a 500 RS room!

Biggest bathroom I’ve had in India:

Cannot get over the adorable sunflower pillow:

Window and pale blue wooden shutters overlooking the courtyard:

Rooftop restaurant:

View from roof:

Chill out area:

My breakfast. Apple pancakes with fruit and sweet chai masala tea:

How I greet him everyday:

I love that it’s family owned. I love that the owner, Rizwan, told me it was his dream to open his own place after working in hotels for years. He said when you enjoy what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.

No, it’s not a five star hotel or anything, but it’s mine. Besides, is any relationship actually perfect?

Mewargarh Palace did not sponsor this post, this is my personal review. The owners are helpful, honest and never pushed me to buy a tour. And they just installed a new A/C unit in my room, which means I love them even more. Why? He said I’m the first customer to use it, pay what you like! They are located 10 minutes (walking distance) from the major sites in Udaipur and can arrange decently priced rickshaw tours to the new part of town. Book them through Hostel World or read reviews on Trip Advisor. When arriving by bus, a rickshaw should cost 60 to 70 RS . Only one train a day comes to Udaipur from Jaipur, you’re better off with the bus. Enjoy! I did.

By |April 27th, 2011 |Categories: Travel Tips, Udaipur |36 Comments

Rajasthan – Jewel of India

When the train lurches, propelling itself from the platform in Delhi, leaving behind the dense, smoggy air and the concrete monoliths that are brimming with families, that familiar tug of motion bubbles. A nugget of knowledge that you are onwards somewhere new, saddling uncharted waters.

The volume of traffic and decibels of honking is a faraway din to your ears, as is the lonely, howling dogs. All is drowned out by the pre-recorded train boardings warbling from the loudspeakers at the station. Your berth and seat number afford some insulation as sprawling Delhi begins to fade.

Maybe it’s the twinkle of morning or the dregs of night. Indian trains always seem the same whatever departure time, a crawling snake the shade of what a depressed sky might look like, a pale blue tinged with grey. The snake moves faster, changing the landscape from city to country.

You take out the crumpled ticket in your pocket and stare at it. Jaipur. Sort of a mystery, yet to be unfolded.

You might snooze for a spate; tinkle around with a novel you’re reading, until finally the mystery unravels.

The window beckons.

Pink jewel mountainous ranges kissing the indigo sky. Acres of wheat fields where bushels wait to be claimed. Dust covered, anorexic trees. Camels as work animals or show pieces for foreigners.

The train window reflects light and shadow. Images shoot through your mind.

Cities planned on mandalas, structured around symmetry. The dusky hues that sweep across the buildings incite wisps of a not so distant past, one of bustling spice markets and exotic women covered in sequins and silks, their kohl eyes holding mystery.

Ardent whispers of mighty kingdoms that end with the death of the last Maharaja, his funeral pyre is set ablaze on hallowed ground where the divine and grace meet.

Romantic, unblemished views that make your heart rush and think of Venice where you shared a delicious kiss.

Empty, stunningly constructed palaces that convey a time when princes created out of ego, and to the highest ideal of beauty.

You reach the outerland of the desert, staring across the openness, the sand dunes rippling with ancient riddles. What answers back is your explorer’s heart. There isn’t nothingness after all.  But, life.

In this land the guidebooks describe as rich in stones, textiles and camel treks, you fall under its spell.

Mostly though, it’s inexplicable, wondrous. A sweet, unmentionable taste in your mouth that you chase and chase.

This is when you know you’ve arrived in Rajasthan.

To access Rajasthan, the best point is Delhi. Most travelers start at Jaipur, and then use that as a launching pad for Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jasilmar, among other popular stops. From Dehli to Jaipur the train is only four hours. It’s always best to book in advance. Try Clear Trip to book a train online.

By |April 25th, 2011 |Categories: Culture, Rajasthan |21 Comments